EXCHANGE WITH CHARLES BERNSTEIN ON TOPSY-TURVY

by Thomas Fink

Thomas Fink:  In Topsy-Turvy (U of Chicago P, 2021), there are four “Books,” “Cognitive Dissonance,” “As I Love,” “Locomotion,” and “Last Kind Words.” Would you say something about the rationale for that structure and the “Book” titles? In the notes section of With Strings (U of Chicago P, 2001), you state that the volume “is organized as a vortex, with each poem furthering the momentum of the book while curving its arc of attentional energy. The structure is modular: a short work might become part of a serial poem or section of a serial poem might stand on its own. The effect is to make the book as a whole a string of interchanging parts. Political, social, ethical, and textual investigations intermingle, presenting a linguistic echo chamber in which themes, moods, and perceptions are permuted, modulated reverberated, and further extended” (131). Is this notion still applicable, two decades later, to Topsy-Turvy?

Charles Bernstein: Yes. I think that description is accurate for all my collections from Islets/Irritations (1992) on; in fact, the new title alludes to this approach to making a book. I see poems as kinetic so the book becomes a constellation of moving parts. I prefer constellation to collage or montage. Books inside books create more possibilities, clusters, webs, matrices – echoes. More strings attached. I began assembling Topsy-Turvy just a year ago, when the lockdown was starting. It felt urgent, right then, but also gave me something complex to focus on. In early Spring, 2020, I submitted a manuscript, without section breaks, to Randy Petlios and Alan Thomas at the University of Chicago Press. One of the (anonymous) readers suggested creating section breaks. There are 110 poems in Topsy-Turvy. This was just too many discrete items to create the ping and pong, push and pull, weft and wept, that I needed. Not like playing tennis without a net but like playing with just one net, or when wet. Using numbered sections seemed anodyne (what an annoying word to use here). I wanted each book to have its own distinct character and one that created a contrast, or better, conflict with the others. I’d used section titles for a number of my other books, poems and essays, but this time I called them “books.” Locomotion was a title I almost used for With Strings.  As I Love I had also thought of for a collection of essays about other poets, similar to the “Pitch” section in Pitch of Poetry; it takes on a different sense here.
            Topsy-Turvy is the final work of a trilogy that includes Recalculating (2013) and Near/Miiss (2018). Not that I planned it that way, but it’s something I’ve realized in retrospect. The titles themselves are a constellation, or maybe triangulation.
            I cannot make it cohere. But I can make it bounce.

Fink:  What makes the three books a trilogy?

Bernstein: Practice.

Fink: What I love about the poem “The Medicinal Uses of Factitious Airs” (31), whose title, Google tells me, comes from a 1795 medical text by Thomas Beddoes and James Watt, is how it deploys “factitious echoes”; with lines frequently ending in “r” sounds, the poem consistently repeats whole lines as a pantoum does, but it messes up the very regular interlocking order of the pantoum:

            Patience will get you only so far
            And with and what and whether
            See it bounce on the razor wire perimeter
            I’d gamble the full three and seven
            And with and what and whether
            Reliance is a thing for warmer weather
            See it bounce on the razor wire perimeter
            A friend in need fills me with terror. (31)

            A pantoum has this structure: a b c d/ b e d f/ e g f h, whereas your first 12 lines look like this: a b c d b e c f d g a e. So the first 8 lines of each are the same, except you substitute d for c in your seventh line, but after that, every line in yours departs from the traditional pantoum structure. How did you come up with and execute such a wild formal idea? What effects resulted from the process?

Bernstein: I learned about Beddoes and Watt’s book from Neşe Devenot, who was doing research for her fascinating dissertation on the poetics of psychedelics. “Factious airs” refers to the experimental fabrication of oxygen and nitrous oxide, but of course I went for the metaphoric senses, keeping in mind that Beddoes’s son was the poet Thomas Lovell Beddoes, author of Death’s Jest-Book (a favorite of my friend Jerome McGann).
            If you put on “airs” aren’t they always factitious?
            And just today I discovered that the wonderful Scottish poet Peter Manson has a 2016 booklet called Factitious Airs.
            It all ties together.
           I thought a pantoum was a floppy three-corner hat with white bunting. But now I’ve looked it up and see what you mean. (And no I have not been inhaling nitrous oxide.) Ted Greenwald liked to say: don’t repeat a word, repeat a line. Years ago I gave a name to these kind of poems: nude formalism (call them loons).
           “The Medicinal Uses of Factitious Airs” was written about five years ago, in Provincetown. What you say about factitious or phantom (pantun)–– fractured –– echoes resonates. I like to create echoic effects without a stable “original.”
           Air in the sense of tune.
           Maybe what you hear is the echo of an absent pantaloon.

Fink: It’s remarkable that your nude formalist echoing came so close in the first eight lines to the traditional pantoum without your intending it.
           I’d call several poems in Topsy-Turvy elegies—for example, for the poets Sean Bonney and Steve Dalachinsky and for the African-American martyr Shields Green. “Karen Carpenter” is in a long, spinal shape, with hyphens separating some parts of some words to slow down the processing. Karen Carpenter had a prodigious range and powerful voice but sang treacly pop songs like “We’ve Only Just Begun,” which you quote and felicitously transform. Although you use this shape for various poems in Topsy-Turvy, perhaps its elegiac function here is to remind us that Karen Carpenter suffered from anorexia nervosa and died of it at the age of 32: “Her voice/ Weeps/ sin-/g-/ing/ to God/ o-/ n a/ fre-/quen-/ cy/ that/ tu-/ nes/ out he-/ r/ cries” (8).
           As I see it, you expose Karen Carpenter as the victim of the sacrificial (Christian) religiosity that she puts into practice; anorexia turns out to be a literal mortification of the flesh in the attempt to reach a theologically driven perfectionism that’s paralleled by her songs’ plaintively articulated idealisms. In the early seventies, the heyday of the Carpenters, I found the way she stretched out her syllables, as you do (as if parodying her “airs”) in the poem, annoyingly mannered. But damn, she really could sing! And you give the meaning of pain/masochism to these attenuations: “Hurting each/ other, b-/ ut-/ c-/ oming/ back f-/ or/ more./ As i-/ f/ hurt/ is/ what/ matters” (9). Your poem provokes thought about the tragic consequences of bad art, bad ideology on a very capable singer. OK, Charles, correct me if my not so airy interpretation is off-key or in the wrong time-signature. And how did “Karen Carpenter” come about? How do you hear its skinny soundings?

Bernstein: Elegy may be what threads my last three poetry collections together. There is something haunting about Karen Carpenter’s voice, as it dances over the abyss of kitsch and bathos. I wanted to write an essay about it, along the lines of Barthes in Mythologies, but ended up writing this poem. When she says “you” in what are ostensibly love songs, I hear that as an address to God. That’s inherent in many love lyrics, but several of The Carpenters’ songs crack the edge in a heartbreaking way. (If love is God’s grace, its absence pierces the soul.) My narrow, broken, shard-like lines sound that out.
           Like jagged edges of a broken piece of glass.
           Did you see the early Todd Haynes film, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987), acted, in part, with barbie dolls? He brings out some of the dynamics you note. I didn’t listen to The Carpenters at the time they recorded their songs; perhaps, like you, I found them, if not mannered, empty. But not too long after, I got hooked, not on all the recordings, just a few songs. I don’t think it’s the backstory but something in the grain of the voice. But no doubt there are layers of identification (and distance) at play. In any case, that emptiness opened into something sublime.
           If there is a value in my poem, it’s not to tell you what I think about the significant issues you raise, or not only tell you, but rather to offer a place to think about it.

Fink: I didn’t see the film. I’ll try to find it.
           At the end of “Creative Wreading and Aesthetic Judgment,” you declare, “When reading poetry is not directed to the goal of deciphering a fixed, graspable meaning but rather encourages performing and responding to overlapping meanings, then difficulty ceases to be an obstacle and is transformed into an opening” (Attack of the Difficult Poems, U of Chicago P, 2011, 48). “Poems of Passion,” one fine opportunity for such an opening, is a feast of grammatical disruption. The first sentence, with its elegantly bumpy enjambments, reads: “Uneven throbs freak/ repair, altered by slow/ pontoon in sight of sodden/ glare” (12). The second, third, and fourth words in the sentence can either be nouns or verbs, and “uneven” is an adjective that could be yanked into service as a noun (if “throbs” is taken as a verb). If “freak” is a verb, then throbs that aren’t even but irregular engage in freaking, yet are they “freaking out” (slang of the sixties and seventies) (about) the (im)possibility of “repair” or are they spooking repair? I presume that metonymy is at play: the throbber is freaking out the person(s) who want to repair or freaking out about the prospect of irreparability. The beginning of the next clause, a truncated past tense verb or verbal, seems connected to “repair” but perhaps the throbbing is what’s altered. A reader ponders how the “pontoon,” whether boat or bridge (and not a pantoum or pantaloon), alters either the uneven physical or emotional effect on the person or the repair process. The “sodden / glare” could come from sunlight’s impact in the immediate locale or from a person. But “sodden” and “glare” gives pause: perhaps a synesthetic oxymoron!? 
           The next sentence shows that the “pontoon” is a boat and introduces two characters: “Then, again, my darling / we’ll paddle to the pass / where eyes rebuff rough / glances and sins peruse / improbable glances” (12). The “eyes” that “rebuff” the expressions of others’ “rough” eyes could belong to the speaker and the “darling” or to onlookers being glared at by the paddlers. Further complications arise in the third and final sentence: “Once / in time, thrice delayed, / caboose will lead its prey / to inkless odes on feather boats / drunk in nick of fray.” The first two phrases indicate that something will happen after multiple delays, but I don’t know whether the “caboose” is the kitchen area of the “pontoon” or just a substitution for the word in the previous sentence. Why are the speaker and the darling “prey” of the “caboose”? Or is this a metonym indicating they are victims of their own travel experience? If prey, they are prey with benefits: “inkless odes,” a nonverbal or at least non-written articulation of praise. This happens on other vehicles, “feather boats” that also convey the luxury of a fashion accessory (“feather boas”). As for who is “drunk” in the cut of combat, we don’t know whether it’s the couple or the boat. I detect an allusion to Arthur Rimbaud’s “The Drunken Boat” and also “As One Put Drunk into the Packet Boat,” the first poem in John Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror; the poem’s title is the opening line of Andrew Marvell’s “Tom May’s Death.” But neither allusion can “explain” your poem’s ending. Perhaps both couple and boat are “drunk,” the first with passion (in “Poems of Passion”) and the second because of turbulent water.
           Do you recall some interesting stages of discovery in the process of writing “Poems of Passion”? As you reread it, what does the poem say to you, give you, withhold from you?

Bernstein: I often think of those poems by Ashbery and Rimbaud and echo them in other poems too. I appreciate your commentary, which reminds me of many delightful exchanges I have had with translators, trying to puzzle through one of my poems, as you are. To adapt a remark of Gertrude Stein: they may be puzzling but they are not puzzles. To make a translation, you have to figure out certain things that you don’t need to in writing or reading a poem. So I often spend time looking at one of my poems from the point of view of a translator. But if I performed this poem, or when I reread it, I am not tempted to figure it out. Maybe that’s what “passion” means.
           I hear the poem as making grammatical sense throughout, so, yes, to do that means hearing what might more commonly be a noun as a verb, as in “freak repair” –– not an accidental repair or a repair by a freak but a repair that has been “freaked.” The OED (my most frequent reference source) does have freak as transitive verb meaning “To fleck or streak whimsically or capriciously.” Sounds like my poetics. Maybe something like ––  “the uneven throbs” are undermining “repair,” which certainly is my experience. Out, out damn throbs. Uneven throbs the heart of my true love’s hair. Maybe the pontoon is related to that obscure pantoun of desire. Once I had to explain to a translator that my personal association with my phrase “fat-bottom boat” was a Florida “glass-bottom boat” trip I took as a child, even though “flat-bottom boat” would be the more likely association. But why not just a boat with a fat bottom? Sometimes a pontoon is just a pantomime (aunt of mine).
           Caboose: what’s behind’s in the lead, one of my (inconstant) reversals.
           Is there no way out of this echo chamber?
           Niedecker writes, “No layoff / from this / Condensery.
           “Poems of Passion” has 53 words in 12, 5-to-8 syllable, lines. The title comes from an 1883  collection by Ella Wheeler Wilcox.

Fink: Here’s to more and more echoing! Recalling that Ashbery has a poem in The Double Dream of Spring (Ecco P, 1970) called “Variations, Calypso and Fugue on a Theme by Ella Wheeler Wilcox” (24-29), I just checked On the Outside Looking Out: John Ashbery’s Poetry (Harvard UP, 1994), John Shoptaw’s encyclopedic study of Ashbery, and the poem begins with one of Wheeler’s quatrains.
           Speaking of quatrains, “Covidity” is one of your “simple” quatrain poems, ballads that could be made into pop tunes: “The covid gonna get me / If not now, it will / The covid gonna kill me / Find me where I live” (138). You’ve been writing these ballads for a while now, and the best known is “The Ballad of the Girly Man.”  In “Covidity,” I often hear the meter of Johnny Cash rather than the Puritan hymn structure of Emily D., though, like Amherst’s feminist rapper, you sometimes rhyme or slant-rhyme the second and fourth lines of each quatrain: “Too much death surrounding /  I darn near given up / Keep calling on the telephone / But you’re hung up on Skype.” The speaker, who calls “social distance” “a pain in the soul” that is “too heavy a load” is “hung up” on the absence of a beloved addressee; the atmosphere of “covidity” intensifies his avidity for intimacy: “You’ve always been distant / But not from me / Now I feel you drifting / Like you’re far out at sea.” He (if it’s male) declares that “if I’m distant from you / I’m sunk before I swum.” The poem’s funniest passage counters the romantic passages, shows that the speaker complies with pandemic protocol despite the “pain in the soul,” and indicates that he’s doomed no matter what he tries to do: “I practice social distance / Even got an oversize mask / Feel like the Lone Ranger / Just before he got the clap.” The line, “And I am much misunderstood” in the third quatrain is repeated with a key difference in the final line: “And we are much misunderstood.”
           Keeping in mind that “is made of words, poetry, not ideas” (“Ars Impotens,” 93), I feel that the move from “I” to “we” feels political, and “covidity” unfortunately became politicized. As far as I can tell, the entire book shows most admirable restraint in refraining from alluding directly to the narcissist-in-chief who left the White House, screaming and kicking, two months ago. So it may be impertinent for me to ask (rather baldly): what specific thoughts about the political environment “stung you into song” to produce “Covidity”? And how do you think this poem relates or doesn’t relate to some of your earlier ballads, such as “The Ballad of the Girly Man,” as well as recent ones?

Bernstein: I appreciate your commentary and it makes me happy to have a reader who hears, and can point to, many of my echoes. Echoes, as I use the word, are different from allusions: they are unstable and involve palpable overlays rather than “pointing back” (anaphor). Like the caboose leading the train, the echo remains while the origin may be lost. Or maybe there is no origin.  Or possibly there are many.
           Topsy-Turvy was written almost entirely before the pandemic, but there are several poems I wrote during that first month, when things were so bad in New York. “Covidity,”  “Shelter in Place,” and “Before the Promise” directly address “rona.” I address Trump and the nature of the ballad in “The Ballad Laid Bare by Its Devices (Even): A Bachelor Machine for MLA,” in Near/Miss, which was written just after the 2016 election. My ballads, while sharing the sort of publicly legible address suggested by the form, are fractured, in the sense of the “fractured fairy tales” I watched as a kid, though my fracturing is of different kind.
           “Always historicize” but don’t only historicize.
           Topsy-Turvy is stamped by the time it was written and by the person who wrote it. Negotiating how and why is not just the pleasure of the text but the value of the poems.

Fink:  Your distinction between echoes and allusions –– hinging on stability/instability of reference –– is very interesting and useful. I’m going to cite you on this point when this issue of reference comes up in my literature classes.
           A translation of Virgil’s Eclogues is the basis for your collaboration with sculptor Richard Tuttle in “Echologs,” which begins:

           Damoetas
           To all’s high, guys! everything that echoes!,
           what gives ground and by Jove’ll cure our songs.

           Menalcas
           But it’s me that beauty loves!; all her charms
           surround, crowns of sweetest ruddy roses.

           Damoetas
           My girl’s cupid, first she creams me with an apple
           then slides behind the willows: peek-a-boo.

           Menalcas
           My guy’s no tease: he comes on to me so often
           our dogs know him much better than my bitch. (79)

What seems most Bernsteinian in this passage is “she creams me with an apple.” And Menalcas’s second sentence has the wonderful vulgarity that you can find in good translations of Catullus.
           What impelled the two of you to choose this famous pastoral text by Virgil? What did you learn from your conversations with Tuttle about the process? Was there a lot of negotiation about particular words and phrases? What did you learn about language from the labor of (re)translation?

Bernstein: In the Spring of 2014, Richard Tuttle suggested that we work together on translating the poetry match in Eclogues. At the time, he made a practice of reading some lines of Greek or Latin every morning. Before we started, Richard suggested we meet at a show of first century BCE Roman sculpture at Christie’s gallery in Rockefeller Center. As we looked at the many busts and full figures, Richard said that, contrary to the common view, he liked these works as much as, if not more than, the earlier art from Greece. At one point we were able to take a sculpted head off the shelf and hold it in our hands. There was directness, an intimacy, to this work –– an immediacy. In contrast, many of the translations of Virgil seemed archaic, filled with arcane references and crusty figurative language. I wanted to create the same kind of presence for Virgil that we experienced with the Roman busts: “a ball of light in one’s hand,” as Pound put it.
           Richard pointed to the cosmopolitan sophistication of Virgil’s poems; yes of course “pastoral,” but also playing to the royal court. So part of what I had in mind was translating that sense of uncanny contemporaneity, recognizing the paradoxical task of the translator here.
           Richard and I shared a great enthusiasm for the Latin writers from 2000 years ago.
           Lucretius is a God to me, along with his cosmic cousin, Baruch Spinoza.
           It was in the year that I turned 16 that I encountered my first teacher of poetics, Marcus Tullius Cicero. From that greatest of all orators I learned to love periods more than sentences; yes, Thomas, periods, and not of the biological kind that afflict young woman at a most awkward age: no, not biological periods, Thomas, put those out your mind; I speak here today, to you, and to the friends who have gathered to listen, and to those who may have found our conversation who we don’t yet know –– I speak of verbal periods, with their weaving and dodging, dodges and weaves, yes, with their exhortations and loops; these verbal utterances have a force, Thomas, no, let us not say force, let us say, and then let us repeat, a charm, charm and power, that our modern and tranquilized sentences, caught up in anemic notions of decorum, cannot, cannot and will never, match.
           Virgil, Cicero, Lucretius, and, indeed, Catullus. Richard and I had already translated together Catullus’s most famous poem, you know, the one about how even though you hate somebody you can’t stop loving them too, and how it drives you crazy. (Collected in Recalculating.) And, as you note, a number of Catullus translations do have the erotic charge and the vulgar vernacular I was looking for in translating Virgil’s poetry match.
           However, I would never have thought to translate Virgil.
           Richard and I worked on the translations for months. Richard would start me off by sending a fairly literal rendering of a couplet. Then I’d get to work. I consulted a number of historical translations and commentaries. My rudimentary knowledge of Latin came in handy. Last year, I decided to supplement the translations I made for “Echologs” by compiling a set of comparative translations, which was published as a pamphlet by Ben Mazer and Raquel Balboni‘s Art and Letters Press in Cambridge, Mass. Reading through that set of translations, each with a different approach, is great fun and offers the fullest answer to your question.

Fink: In “Poetic Citizenship and Negative Dialectics,” which was written for an academic conference on poetry and citizenship, you alternate (dialectically) between plain type and italics to foreground different perspectives without valorizing particular ones:

••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••

Poetry is best that governs least.

No it isn’t.

Poetry and citizenship are inconsolably incommensurable, conjoined at the heart but beating time to different drummers.

From time to time.

Aesthetic justice is symbolic and dwells next to, not in, the world of political action.

Give me a break! (100) . . . .

The promise of a poem, the kind of poetry I want, is that it refuses  reality.

But is it good for the Jews?

To be a poetic citizen is not to act as a citizen but to perform as a poet. But there can be no citizenship without poetry. Even citizenship is symbolic. Citizenship that refuses dialogue with the delirious, wanton, discomforting possibilities of poetry approaches nativism.

Get off your low horse.

If citizenship is the first language of the democrat, then poetry is a second language that, out of love and deep need, refuses to obey its mother tongue.

Poetry has no purpose and that is not its purpose. (102)

••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••


           What does your allusion to Adorno’s Negative Dialectics in the poem’s title signify? The first voice often sounds like your aphorisms in essays; that second voice is slippery: why should the first voice “get off [its] low horse”? The “dialogue” poses questions: Couldn’t “discomforting possibilities” stemming from the refusal of “reality” be “good for the Jews” and the Palestinians and Croatians, etc.? Does realpolitik/ideology constrain imagination any more or less than sterile uses of imagination fail to account for ideology? Does poetry’s purposelessness make it the reader’s job to discover multiple purposes for their engagement with it?
           How does the “negative dialectic” of “Poetic Citizenship” reflect your own current dialogue with past “selves,” past and present fellow travelers, antagonists, former students?

Bernstein: Poetic thinking can be activist: dialogic rather than monologic, not to say lyric (but, sure, my poems are as lyric as the next guy’s).
           The gaps I mean (the poem as mending wall).
           There is a chilling shame directed at any aversion to grounding a poem in a stable, anaphoric, positive, lyric voice. Negative dialectics: I may be guilty of that but I refuse to be ashamed. My book is signed with my name and my poems are as much identifiably mine as anyone else’s; even my aversions are anaphoric (that is, can be assigned to a biographical person outside, or “before,” the poem).
           Negative dialectics is the chicken soup of the soul, poetry’s soil.
           In other words, there is more than one way to get to Rome. (Take a left just a half-mile after where the filling station used to be.)
           In other words, sometimes “yelping dogs” can orient you, but you don’t need to become one –– I mean the yelping dogs in myself.
           In other words, sometimes not knowing is the closest we come to truth. Because truth doesn’t listen to us; we listen for it.
           And that means, from time to time, just listening.

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